D-Day: What Was Operation Tarbrush X?

In our first installment of the Unknown History series on D-Day, we learn about Operation Tarbrush X and the agents that risked their lives for the Allied forces. 

Giles Milton
7-minute read
Episode #76

General Eisenhower and the architects of D-Day knew that the Allied landings would only be successful if they had up-to-the-minute information about the German coastal defenses.

They already had French spies working on their behalf—and we’ll get to more of this a little later—but they also needed to smuggle daring agents across to the beaches of Normandy in order to undertake close inspections of the enemy fortifications.

It was not for the faint-hearted. It was highly dangerous, with the certainty of death at the hands of the Gestapo, if captured. So who on earth would volunteer for such work?

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Step forward George Lane, whose undercover mission to Nazi-occupied France proved the most extraordinary of them all.

Lane’s addiction to risk had driven him to join the elite British commandos; it had also led him to volunteer for a perilous undercover mission codenamed Operation Tarbrush X. In the second week of May 1944, he was to smuggle himself into Nazi-occupied France using the cover of darkness to paddle ashore in a black rubber dinghy. His task was to investigate a new type of mine that the Germans were believed to be installing on the Normandy beaches.

Lane had the air of a quintessentially British adventurer, but he was actually Hungarian. His real name was Dyuri Lanyi—and he was a member of the elite X-Troop, a British-led commando unit consisting of foreign nationals whose countries had been overrun by the Nazis.

It was not for the faint-hearted. It was highly dangerous, with the certainty of death at the hands of the Gestapo, if captured.

His undercover mission occurred just a few weeks before D-Day. It got off to a flying start. He and his commando comrade, Roy Wooldridge, crossed the English Channel in a motor torpedo boat and then paddled ashore in a the dinghy. The elements were on their side. It was raining hard and spray was being flung across the beach.

Lane soon found one of the new German mines and took a photograph of it. But as he did so, he was spotted by German guards. Seconds later, they began firing wildly into the driving rain.

Lane and Wooldridge scraped themselves into the sand and waited until the shooting stopped. Then, having had quite enough adventure for one night, they clambered back into their dinghy and prepared to put to sea.

But as dawn broke the sky, they realized they’d been spotted. A German boat was coming after them and they soon found themselves with very little option other than to surrender. They were in serious, grave, danger.

Soon after they landed, a Gestapo officer arrived to interrogate them. "Of course you know we’ll have to shoot you," he said, "because you are obviously a saboteur and we have very strict orders to shoot all saboteurs and commandos." He added: "What were you doing?"

Lane refused to answer any questions: his silence led to him to a locked cell for the rest of that day and night. He was always cool under pressure but he got the fright of his life when at dawn his cell door opened and standing there was a doctor in a white gown. "My God, what’s going to happen now?"

He and Wooldridge were blindfolded and the two of them were bundled into a car and driven off at high speed. Lane asked where they were going. He got no answer.

Eventually the German military car came to a halt in a private drive; the doors opened and Lane’s blindfold was removed by one of the sentries. When he looked up, he blinked in disbelief. "What a strange place! Just look at it!" A fortified château stood bolted to the rock; a one-time feudal castle that had been converted into an eighteenth-century pleasure palace. There was little time to admire the view for he and Wooldridge were led inside and locked into two separate rooms.

"After a little while," said Lane, "a very elegant officer came in and, to my amazement, we shook hands." He spoke perfect English and gave Lane fresh chicken sandwiches and coffee.

As Lane ate, the officer said: "Do you realize you are about to meet someone very important? I must have your assurance that you’re going to behave with the utmost dignity."

"I happen to be an officer and a gentleman," said Lane, "and cannot behave in any other way." He paused and added: "But who am I going to meet?"

The officer stiffened as he snapped out his reply. "You are going to meet His Excellency Field Marshal Rommel."


About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.